After two consecutive defensive collapses, the Michigan football team is looking for an answer. Any answer.
It’s a time when many want to write the Wolverines off, giving them a slim chance to even make a bowl. But according to junior cornerback Donovan Warren, the answer to the Wolverines’ woes isn’t schematic or overly technical — it has to come from within.
“You’ve got to take a look in the mirror and ask yourself, ‘Are you doing everything that is possible to make this team better?’ ” Warren said. “I feel like some guys just need to take a look in the mirror, including myself and including everyone on the team. Everyone from the trainers, to the weightroom coaches, everyone, just take a look in the mirror and come to work.”
This season, Warren has done his share on the field to make the Wolverines a better team and give the increasingly weak secondary a chance. His pass coverage, the best on the team, is third-best in the Big Ten with 10 pass breakups. He is also tied for fifth with three interceptions.
But Warren said yesterday it’s off-the-field things that he and seniors Stevie Brown and Brandon Graham will do to motivate their teammates and lead the young defense out of its slump.
Graham said he planned to address the team during yesterday’s practice. The defensive end’s speech was set to include seizing the opportunity to play in a bowl game, ignoring distractions and how at this point in the season, the product is less about effort and more about heart.
“They really tune into those breaks at practice, especially when their teammates are talking,” Graham said. “They going to listen to what I got to say or any senior got to say because (Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez) always calls on the seniors to break down the huddle and someone’s always giving a speech.”
Graham’s words will need to be pretty strong to compensate for the Wolverines’ recent defensive short fallings. Rodriguez said yesterday that the defensive effort has been there, but it’s more of an issue of overthinking plays and playing “tight” and nervously. He named Graham as one player who hasn’t fallen victim to those problems.
“He makes mistakes, but he plays at a high level all the time,” Rodriguez said of Graham. “And he makes a lot of plays, because he’s an experienced guy, and he’s been there, and he lets it loose. Very simple.”
It seems simple for Graham now. He has been one of Michigan’s best playmakers all year and moved into second place on the Michigan career list for sacks (25) during the Illinois game. His blocked punt against the Illini in the final minutes of the Wolverines’ demoralizing 38-13 loss exemplified Graham’s work ethic.
He is trying to motivate his teammates the best he can on the field and off, but it doesn’t take the senior long to put himself in his younger teammates’ shoes and remember what it was once like.
“You just get nervous just being out there on the field for the first time,” Graham said. “That second year still, you just kind of nervous because you want to make sure everything is just right. You want to make sure you hold up your end.
“It comes in time, and I believe they’ll end up playing looser sooner.”
And even though Rodriguez praised Graham’s fluid play, the senior quickly admitted he still gets just as jittery before games as he did in his first year.
“Before games, I always think about what I’m going to say because I’ll be nervous, just as nervous as everybody else, before that first hit,” he said.
President’s support: University President Mary Sue Coleman gave Rodriguez a vote of confidence in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last weekend.
In light of Rodriguez’s recent on-the-field struggles, Coleman told the Journal she didn’t “think it’s fair to coaches to bring them in and say, ‘We’re going to give you three years.’ ”
“Mary Sue has been very supportive,” Rodriguez said. “Just about every week, she’ll send a note. We talked a couple weeks ago very briefly. Everybody has been supportive. I mean, I want everybody to have patience. I don’t have much of it, but I wish our players would have patience.”
Injury update: Rodriguez said yesterday that senior tailback Brandon Minor continues to battle a high ankle sprain and is day-to-day. Minor has been limited during practices for much of this season, and Rodriguez said he felt that the injury will continue to be an issue for the remainder of the season. … Defensive lineman Greg Banks suffered a foot sprain against Illinois and will be limited this week. … Slot receiver Martavious Odoms (knee) is also day-to-day.